Alejandro is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative. His fieldwork is concerned with alternative health campaigns against dengue fever, especially those which employ art as a medium. Here he explains his work with a mosquito-shaped kite in Medillín, Colombia.
Myself and my colleague, Andrés Ramírez Valencia, had grown tired of the boring public health campaigns against dengue fever, with their poorly designed cartoon books and posters. One afternoon, we asked ourselves: how can we produce a non-conventional public health campaign?
We asked ourselves what might happen if we designed a mosquito-kite? Mosquitoes have been seen as symbols of disease for thousands of years, and the visual nature of kites can break down cultural and linguistic barriers. A mosquito-kite might help people think about dengue (and its prevention) in new ways.
The dream became reality with the project ‘A Couple of Wings in Mind’. We travelled with our first mosquito-kite to some kite festivals in America and Europe, and carried out interventions in Medellín and its surrounding areas.
We wanted to go beyond the critique of the traditional discourse of health campaigns, re-thinking how mosquitoes and dengue are understood to interact with people as well as how kites interact with people.
Based on our early experiences and knowledge from five months of fieldwork in Medellín, Colombia, Andrés and I re-designed the kite to reproduce the form and movement of the mosquito, known as ‘zancudo’ in Colombia, which carries dengue fever (Aedes aegypti).
With this second version of the kite, we are trying to reach a wider audience and encourage a greater number of participants. We have recently started something that we call ‘mosquito art attacks’ - a series of art interventions in different parts of Medellín city.
When Andres and I began this project, we wanted to ask people to make drawings on the kite’s surface about what dengue, health campaigns or mosquitoes mean for them. However, once we finished the kite, we realised it was very beautiful and we thought that it would look better without drawings all over it. Instead, we held kite-making workshops where the participants were able to paint their own kites.
As a strategy for involving children in our mosquito art attacks, we designed small kites on acetate.
These were excellent at recreating the form and movement of the zancudo.
Mosquitoes are connected with ideas such as sleeplessness, dreams or nightmares. However, mosquitoes are not as harmless as people used to think; in Colombia they are also symbols of death.
As Myriam, who is a farmer that sells her own products at the streets of Medellín, commented:
“A zancudo is not as harmless as you can imagine, because it can bring death to some people, is it true or not? If you just look at it, you will say: nothing will happen, but it’s not true, because it does happen.”
Our next move was to take the kite to a cemetery located in the north of Medellín. Besides the symbolic idea of ‘death,’ where else would you see more flowers, vases and water containers together – a perfect breeding ground for the zancudo, as shown by previous public health campaigns.
We were unsure how people would react to our kite in this setting, but after flying it for some minutes, taxi drivers, children and even mourners approached us to play with the kite. They also made comments about mosquitoes, dengue and the poorly designed campaigns that health authorities have produced in the past.
In Colombia, cemeteries are not only places that keep ‘loved ones alive’; they are appropriated by the living for other purposes, and our intervention also shows different ways of perceiving them.
Our latest ‘art attack’ did not go quite so smoothly. Although we knew Medellín was a city full of inequality and social conflict, we were surprised to learn we needed to ask permission to fly a kite in a public park of the city. Security officers identified our mosquito-kite as a ‘dangerous weapon’, at first not allowing us to fly it.
However, we felt this intervention was an important one, and the kite was a perfect tool for interacting with people in different socio-cultural contexts. After a long discussion with five officers, and once security cameras had taken many photographs of the kite, they realised we couldn’t do anything dangerous with it. We were finally allowed to fly the kite for 10 minutes.
As you can see, this art attack quickly drew an audience.
This project would not have been possible without the economic support of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and the Horniman Museum and Gardens through the Horniman Collecting Initiative. An example of this kite will be presented to the Horniman at the end of the project.
Watch a film made with people in Medellín as part of Alejandro’s fieldwork.
To learn more about this project, take a look at Alejandro’s website and blog.